Thursday, April 02, 2009

Proceed Until Apprehended!

I had many lucky breaks in my career; but one of the luckiest occurred back in 1993, when George Latimer - former Mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota - came to HUD to help new Secretary Henry Cisneros unleash innovation. George had been a very successful innovator as Mayor (you’ll see his name mentioned several times in David Osborne’s book, Reinventing Government) and had a strong track record. He was in charge of the Secretary’s “Special Actions Office,” a small staff to the Secretary that served as an incubator for new ideas.

Lucky me…George plucked me from the rank and file to help him navigate the government bureaucracy and keep things organized. Like the obedient public servant I had been trained to be, I waited for George to tell me what he wanted me to do. And the very first lesson George taught me was this: don’t make your boss do all the thinking. Figure it out. Make it happen. If there’s something you need the boss to do, bring in the options – along with the memo to sign; and we’ll make it happen. But don’t sit around waiting to be told what to do. And while you’re at it, be a little gutsy. Remember: it’s often easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Whew! George’s philosophy opened a whole new world for me, as a public servant. What a terrific atmosphere for me to work in, as I became HUD’s first web manager and went through those first months of trial and error, growing a new form of service delivery. George taught me if you see a void that you think you can fill - in a right way - go for it. Proceed until apprehended!

I was reminded of George when I read a quote by White House New Media Director, Macon Phillips, at last week’s Government 2.0 Camp. When someone suggested to him that agencies will look to the White House for direction on innovation, he replied, “Go! Do it! Don’t wait for the White House to solve your problems. Learn, evangelize, and implement yourselves.” If George Latimer had been sitting in that audience, I can tell you he would have jumped to his feet and cheered loudly!

We who were the first government web managers learned quickly that, with no path to follow, you pretty much were on your own, figuring out what to do with government websites. As long as I based my actions on doing the right thing for the American people, I was OK. No one had a better answer, so I just proceeded (and I seldom was apprehended!). But now, government web managers often are shackled by bureaucracy that has become much more web-wise and cautious.

A new wind of innovation is blowing in government. But innovation only succeeds to the extent that people at all levels feel free to be innovative. That’s what George Latimer taught me, and that was Macon Phillips’ message. Figure it out. Make it happen. Involve the bosses when they’re needed to give an order or break down a barrier (and don’t forget to bring along that memo to sign!), but don’t wait for them to tell you what to do.

Whenever I speak to a group of government web managers, the last thing I say is, “Proceed until apprehended!” Thank you, George. Thank you, Macon.

1 comment:

Stephen Buckley said...


So, let's consider what would happen if a federal employee starts blogging about their office, and then his/her boss asks "Hey, what's this?"

Should the employee just say "Don't worry, Boss. I heard someone from the White House's Office of New Media say that it was okay to do it."

And then, his/her boss will say, "Oh, really? That's strange, because I didn't get that memo. Can I see your copy?"

Of course, there is no such "memo". And, maybe the new "Open Government Directive" will speak to that but, until then, the verbal remarks by a political appointee (even from the White House) carry no weight, officially speaking, with federal managers. (Nor should they.)nge the thinking of federal managers nationwide.

But that scenario with the federal boss is what plays in the heads of all the would-be innovators who are not so lucky as to have federal bosses as exceptional and empowering as Mr. Latimer was to you.

And so, WE should not pretend that federal employees will begin pretending that their boss, i.e., the person who controls their career more than anyone else, has suddenly (and imperceptibly) become exceptionally empowering.

Deja-vu Note --The higher-ups of the federal "reinventing government" effort in the 1990's thought that they could simply exhort federal employees to pretend that they had been empowered to try innovative (risky) new things. (Most federal employees decided, instead, to act rationally, and act as if their boss had NOT changed.)

The "change-leaders" of today should learn from that. Rhetoric is great, but it is no subsitute for good implementation.

Stephen Buckley